“We are excited and thrilled to have won the game,” Davis told reporters during his postgame press conference. “I don't know if I have ever been involved in as bizarre a football game as what transpired tonight.”
No. 22 North Carolina (5-1, 1-1 ACC) had thought it was on its way to running out the game clock, following a Cam Sexton third-down 29-yard completion to Brooks Foster with 2:02 remaining in the contest. But the officials reviewed the play, and despite the replay showing Foster taking two steps while having possession before losing control when he hit the ground, the original call was overturned, giving Jimmy Clausen (31-of-48, 383 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) and the Fighting Irish one last chance at victory.
The sophomore quarterback drove Notre Dame 49 yards down to the UNC 33, but the Tar Heel defense held the Irish to a 4th and 13 with 11 seconds left. Clausen connected with Michael Floyd at the 9-yard line and Jordan Hemby appeared to force a fumble with Trimane Goddard recovering the ball, but the officials marked the ball and Clausen snapped the ball and spiked it.
It was only then that the officials decided to review the previous play.
“Based on the previous experiences during the course of the game, I was not severely, overly optimistic about the potential outcome,” Davis said of the final review.
After several minutes of intense discussion, they ruled that Floyd did fumble and that it was UNC’s ball at the 19 with three seconds left, sealing the fifth victory of the season for the Tar Heels.
“It’s just another victory for us,” Sexton said when asked about beating a traditional power such as Notre Dame. “We’re not worried about what’s going on outside of this building. We set out to win this game, period, and we did.”
North Carolina’s defense was content to rush three and four defensive linemen while dropping seven or eight into coverage for most of the night, allowing Clausen to conjure memories of Joe Montana, circa 1975.
Notre Dame (4-2) took 18 snaps before Armando Allen (11 carries for 60 yards) entered the game at running back, and that strategy worked early as the Irish jumped out to a 17-6 lead and then a 17-9 halftime margin behind a 19-yard scoring strike to Golden Tate (5 catches, 121 yards, 1 TD) on their opening possession and a seven-yarder to Floyd (6 catches, 93 yards, 1 TD) in the final minute before the break.
“They were going empty [backfield] a lot, so we had more defenders back,” Sturdivant said. “We were trying to get a pass rush with the front three and we did a good job doing that, but Notre Dame did a good job as well. Jimmy Clausen’s a good quarterback and [they have] good receivers.”
In all, Notre Dame tallied 472 total yards of offense to North Carolina’s 322, but the most important statistic of the night fell heavily in UNC’s favor – a 5-0 turnover margin.
One of those turnovers turned the momentum for the Tar Heels to start the second half, as linebacker Quan Sturdivant intercepted Clausen on the first play of the third quarter and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown to cut the deficit to 17-16. Notre Dame drove right back down to increase the lead to 24-16 on a James Aldridge two-yard touchdown run, but Sexton (18-of-32, 201 yards) continued his steady play in place of injured T.J. Yates.
The red-shirt junior manufactured a 13-play, 69-yard scoring drive on the ensuing possession, capped off by Ryan Houston’s one-yard touchdown run to get back to within 24-22. Houston finished with 28 yards on eight carries, while Shaun Draughn gained 91 yards on 17 rushes.
Sexton lost two of his main targets (Brandon Tate – knee, Zack Pianalto – ankle) during the contest, but Hakeem Nicks rose to the occasion with nine receptions for 141 yards – his school record eighth career 100-yard game.
With the third quarter winding down, Aleric Mullins stripped Clausen near midfield and recovered his own forced fumble, setting up North Carolina in Notre Dame territory at the 42. Nine plays later, Sexton scored on a two-yard bootleg scamper to the right side of the end zone to put the final points of the contest on the scoreboard.
Casey Barth connected on three of his four field goal attempts (41, 34, 42, missed from 52).
The Tar Heels take their 5-1 (1-1 ACC) record to Charlottesville next Saturday to face Virginia at 3:30 p.m.